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With Saleh in their sights, protesters in Yemen plan march on palace

Arab Spring's longest-running protest movement is about to take it up a notch.

Yemen protests saleh 2011 5 10Enlarge
Yemeni protesters, with anti-government slogans painted on their bodies, demonstrate against President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime in Sanaa on May 9, 2011. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

SANAA, Yemen — Yemen’s anti-government demonstrators, who have seen few positive results since they began camping out in front of Sanaa University more than three months ago, say they have decided to go on the offensive.

After more than 50 protesters were killed following Friday prayers on March 18, several committees were formed in protest camps nationwide, each tasked devising strategies to further the protest movement. Almost two months later, these plans are beginning to unfurl.

And so, after months of stagnation, the Arab Spring’s longest-running revolt could be gaining steam.

The committees' various strategies, some of which have already been put into effect, include widening the protest area beyond Sanaa University, nationwide strikes, blockading roads and ports, and a planned march on the palace of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Under the cover of darkness on Monday, hundreds of protesters left the protection of defected soldiers and began to expand their protest camp in Sanaa, building rows of tents that crept closer and closer to military checkpoints still loyal to the president.

In a statement given by protest leaders, general strikes and marches will intensify across Yemen in a 10-day push to force Saleh out of power, ending on May 20 with a march on the presidential palace.

“It is our hope to unite all parties involved in the revolution,” the statement said. “Our escalation hopes to fulfill the dreams of our martyrs and to save the fatherland, achieve our victory and to achieve the desired civil state.”

Protester leaders said that despite plans to intensify their civil disobedience, they aimed to maintain a peaceful movement.

Many activists regret a march on the state-run television station in Sanaa earlier this month that resulted in violence and are calling on protesters to stay peaceful and to stop throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, even if they deem it self defense.

“We are calling for protesters to be as peaceful as possible. When we march on the presidential palace, we are calling for people to simply lay down on the ground if attacked, just as Gandhi suggested,” said Sarah, one of the movement’s leading youth activists who asked that her last name not be used.

As a kind of practice run last month, more than 20,000 protesters marched to the borders of Sanaa's Change Square, which is outside Sanaa University and the site where the protests first began in Yemen.

Avoiding clashes with security forces, the march proved that large numbers of people could be mobilized peacefully.

Former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled his country less than a month after the now famous self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. In the same fashion, the former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, resigned less than a month after calls for his ouster began on Jan. 25.

Yemen’s protest movement began hours after Mubarak’s resignation, just after midnight on Feb. 11. Five months later, however, Saleh remains, having weathered persistent protests and international calls for his resignation.

Part of the reason he remains might be Yemen’s sparse and rural population. Yemen’s capital and largest urban center is home to only 2.3 million people, as opposed to Cairo’s 6.7 million. More than 20 percent of the entire population of Tunisia calls its capital, Tunis, their home.

Less than 9 percent of Yemen’s population, meanwhile, lives in Sanaa. Without the population size to mobilize millions in a single city, protesters in Yemen have been forced to make the economy a tool for revolution.

“We have banded together across Yemen in major civil disobedience campaigns. We have to fight Saleh economically as well as through demonstrations,” said Adel Al-Surabi, one of the first youth activists to pitch a tent in front of Sanaa University and call for an end to Saleh’s 32-year rule.

As the Arab world’s poorest country, a small trickle of oil in its desert regions has been the singular lifeline for Yemen’s weak economy. That lifeline has now been cut as oil workers, in solidarity with the reform movement, continue to strike.

In Sanaa, only a few gas stations remain open as lines of cars nearly a mile long wait their turn to fill up.

In Aden and Hodeida, Yemen’s largest harbor cities, workers at the docks have refused to offload cargo and demonstrators have shut down shipping facilities. With ports shut down and diesel nowhere to be found, wheat imports are no longer finding their way to bakeries in major cities.

As the economy crumbles around him, and a 20,000-strong march on his palace looms, Saleh’s grip on power remains tentative.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/110510/yemen-protests-saleh